The Alberta Legislature Building: A Living Monument
Valerie Footz is Director of Library Services and Records Management. Philip Massolin is Clerk of Committees and Research Services at the Legislative Assembly Office
Alberta’s Legislature Building has undergone many renovations since its construction more than 100 years ago. From technological improvements to structural repairs to an ever-changing colour palette, the building has truly become a living monument. In this article, the authors trace the history of major and minor renovations and pay special attention to projects that coincided with significant visits or anniversaries.
Even before it was completed, the Alberta Legislature Building was undergoing alterations. The project, while grand and magnificent, a striking beacon for the burgeoning young province, was affected by changing architectural directions initially and emerging needs over time. Started by one architect, Allan M. Jeffers, and completed by another, Richard P. Blakey, the Building incorporated different visions. Jeffers left the project in 1912, to become a Hollywood set designer, leaving Blakey to complete the interior and the south wing, where the Chamber is located.The challenges of the construction are documented in numerous articles and studies, but the history of the Building renovations over the course of time, the subject of this article, is fragmented and incomplete. The objective of this piece is to provide a brief history of such renovations and the impact they had on this impressive building and the individuals who inhabit it.
When the Assembly convened for its first sitting in the new Building in November of 1911, it was not long before issues arose. “Legislators’ lives imperiled by walls”, read one headline, as Members continued their first sitting in the new Legislative Chamber.By January 1912, the Legislature Building was still settling. The plaster on the pillars in the Chamber began to crack. A bill was being debated when a “sharp crack” was heard, followed by a cascade of plaster that showered the floor near the Premier’s seat. Premier Arthur Sifton did not budge; rather he glared across the floor as he looked to see if it was part of an orchestrated attack by opposition Members. The Speaker instinctively reached for his gavel to call order if required, but nothing came of it. About a week later, during a debate on the budget, a Member for Calgary asked the Premier what provisions had been made for the reduction of the province’s debt. To the delight of the Members present, Premier Sifton retorted that these things would not last forever and that if any evidence of that was needed, all they needed to do was look around and see the plaster falling off the walls!
While being presented as a “marked contrast to the barn-like, ill-ventilated, incommodious room in which the law-makers of the province have been want to labor in the past”, by the 1920s, the Chamber was still a cavernous space not conducive to debates. In 1924, Members reeled off multiple complaints leading to the eye-catching headline of “Members risk their lives in house chamber.” During committee discussions of the Department of Public Works’ budget estimates, Dr. John S. Stewart, the Member for Lethbridge, complained about the ventilation in the Chamber. While Minister of Public Works, Alexander Ross, agreed that the ventilation was poor, he expressed concern that any renovations would be too costly. Leader of the Official Opposition, John R. Boyle, then complained about the acoustics, especially when the galleries were empty. A Calgary Herald writer cheekily suggested that filling the galleries with building staff might be a solution to the problem: “The staffs, marshalled by some soldierly-like person would march in and out on various words of command, while expert acousticians, armed with acousticords, would test the acoustics and report at a later date on the desirability of plugging the galleries with civil servants, in all seats not occupied by the public. It would be interesting but rather hard on the civil servants, perhaps.” The criticism continued with Members remarking on the glare of the lighting in the Chamber and the cold draughts. Valid concerns, but life-threatening?
Indeed, the acoustics in the Chamber was a long-standing problem. From the beginning, Members had difficulty hearing each other. To resolve the issue, at first, cotton was draped along the walls to dampen sound. The long-term solution was to install elaborate tapestries in the Chamber, as the finishing touches on the Building were completed, but this never occurred. There was hope that laying carpet after the sitting concluded in February 1912 would solve the problem. It did not. In 1914, a vast improvement was reported after the H.W. Johns-Manville Company placed “felts of a special nature” in the panels of the ceiling and walls, covered them with a membrane and then painted over them to match the interior.In 1919, silk and velvet drapes with valances adorned the Chamber walls for the visit of the Prince of Wales and then remained up for the visit of the Duke of Devonshire (then Governor General) two months later. In an article entitled, “These Halls were not made for Dances,” The Calgary Herald declared:
The heavy velour curtains that were hung around the walls are to be left in position until after the next session of the House. First draped in rich effect to help carry out the decorative scheme of the ball-room, they are now, with some slight changes in arrangement, to please and gratify the aesthetic tastes of the Alberta legislators. If the latter indicate their approval sufficiently and particularly if the experiment improves the acoustic qualities of the chamber, the curtains will be retained as a permanent furnishing.
Not until the summer of 1963, when a loudspeaker system was added, was the acoustics issue finally resolved. At that time, each Member’s desk was equipped with a microphone and an earphone and loudspeakers were installed in the galleries. The new audio equipment also allowed for the recording of debates or speeches as Members of the Legislative Assembly wished.
Renovations and improvements to the Legislature Building were commonly tied to special events, such as the Prince of Wales’ visit in 1919. Sometimes, the changes were permanent; other times, they were temporary. The 1919 visit saw a temporary fountain installed in the centre of the rotunda.It was removed after the visit, just as the fountain installed for the 1939 Royal Visit of King George and Queen Elizabeth was later removed. A newspaper report from 1939 indicates the fountain installed for the Royal Visit had live perch in the basin and a ball on an invisible string that made it look as though it was floating on the fountain top as the pressure of the water went up and down. It took a third Royal Visit in 1959 by Queen Elizabeth II for a permanent fountain to be installed.
The 1919 visit of the Prince of Wales resulted in further adjustments within the Legislature Building. The Chamber was transformed into a ballroom, with the Speaker’s chair and Members’ desks removed and the luxurious sound-dampening carpet lifted for a dance floor.When the Governor General remarked about the modifications to the Chamber, he was reassured it was an anomaly and that the Legislative Assembly was not in the habit of accommodating gala events on a regular basis.
The 1959 Royal Visit of Queen Elizabeth II resulted in a number of further enhancements to the Legislature Building and its grounds, in addition to the installation of the permanent fountain. In connection with the Royal Visit, a cairn was erected on the grounds to mark the former location of Fort Edmonton. The lawn bowling greens were spruced up, and a bandshell on the south grounds and walkway from the Building to the south grounds were constructed.
In addition to contending with acoustics and coping with the requirements of hosting Royal visitors, those in charge of building renovations also had to deal with concerns about décor. In 1939, a discordant panoply of colours in the Chamber garnered media attention. The deep blue velour drapery, red furniture, and new green carpet caused confusion. The original carpet in the Chamber was bright red with a motif of a crown encircled with oak leaves. Worn from 27 years of use, the old carpet was replaced with a new green one, reflecting the colour traditionally associated with a Lower House. The colour change was not an issue but rather there was an initial “shriek in protest until the mellowing hand of time subdued all three [drapery, furniture and carpet] to amity …”
In early 1956, the interior of the Chamber’s dome was repainted to the shock of many of its inhabitants. Whites were replaced with bold colour choices: blues, browns, reds, greens, gold and grey. Public Works officials decided the existing white lacked character and no one actually looked up to see the inside of the dome. Taking their cue from buildings in Europe (“where they’re not afraid of color”), they proceeded to transform the interior. The response was swift. The Leader of the Opposition, J. Harper Prowse, said it looked like they were trying to change the rotunda into a “bachelor’s apartment” and referred to the new colour scheme as “Hartley’s Horror”, in reference to the legacy of Minister of Public Works James Hartley. When the Chamber was repainted in 1956, for the first time since the opening of the Building, a more subdued paint colour scheme was selected.
A “legislative” museum was housed in the building until the construction of the Provincial Museum in 1966. Situated on the 5th floor, this room displayed a variety of artifacts, including a uniform from the North-West Mounted Police, a piece of pemmican said to be from the 1800s, and various bits of taxidermy. The museum was established by the province’s first Chief Game Officer thus explaining the stuffed birds and mammals.With the arrival of the carillon to celebrate the country’s centennial in 1967, the name of the space was changed to the Carillon Room. Concerts were regularly played by the provincial carillonneur in the room’s dramatically transformed environment.
In 1972, more renovations occurred following a change in government. Under new Speaker Gerard Amerongen, a curved desk, consisting of three sections, was installed on the dais. From 1972 until 1980, seating plans show that the Clerk and the Clerk Assistant flanked the Speaker at the rounded desk. The Assembly reverted to a scarlet carpet. Also in 1972, Premier Peter Lougheed renovated the Premier’s wing to allow for a reception area.
The changes during the Lougheed Government period paled in comparison to the renovations that were to come about as part of the 75th anniversary of the Building in 1987. Under the direction of Speaker David Carter, the plan originally had three ambitious phases. The first phase focused on the Chamber. Among the changes were:
- The dais was decreased in size to allow for greater mobility on the Chamber floor (Pages were able to go behind the Speaker’s chair to serve Members as required).
- Provision was made for greater accessibility for the disabled.
- 60 seats added to Public and Members’ galleries.
- Original gallery seats reupholstered and refinished.
- Brass tubing was replaced in gallery parapets to improve the sightlines of visitors.
- The sound system was replaced as the existing system had been failing, impeding the ability for Members to be heard.
- Over 40,000 linear feet of cabling installed to enhance audio and video capabilities.
- New green carpet replaced red carpet, again to reflect the “legislative green” of a Lower House.
- The rotunda and hallways were repainted for the second time since 1912. But phases two and three were never implemented.
When the more limited renovations were complete, Speaker Carter remarked:
In reality it is the number one building in the province in it is combined importance – its political, architectural, and historical focus. It’s a great old building and a very fine building for its day, but nobody at that time envisioned all of the electronic requirements that would be needed in the future.
In fact, the Building was overloaded electrically. As a building constructed in the early 20th century, the electrical capacity was limited. Many newspaper accounts over the years detail the intricacies of changing the lightbulbs in the vaulted ceiling of the Chamber, but the challenges of the electrification of the Building were experienced throughout. When preparing for more renovations in the 1950s, a former employee recalled having to run a metal snake through the electrical wiring at one end and then hunting around room-by-room to find where it came out. In some cases, it was found on another floor in a different wing.
These days, some cabling is being removed as technology marches on and Wi-Fi is available for today’s technology-savvy Members and staff. As it was, the Legislative Assembly of Alberta was one of the first in Canada to enable staff and Members to use computers in the Chamber to do their work. Table Officers first began using laptops in 1994 with Members following soon thereafter. In 2002, the Alberta Legislature Building became the first in Canada to use solar power.Two dozen solar panels were installed on the roof of the building’s power plant to help meet demand.
The exterior of the Alberta Legislature Building has also been the focus of refurbishment, especially of late. Over the years, the original sandstone has deteriorated. Indeed, no flashing was ever installed to protect the building from the rain and snow. The flat roofs on the east and west wings collected water, and the harsh weather led to the decay of the exterior of the Legislature Building. In addition, the location of the fountain directly beneath the cupola affected the interior of the structure due to excessive moisture. A renovation was completed to address the resultant bulging terra cotta tiles on the cupola.
While major undertakings, this and other fixes were not sufficient for the longer term. The 100th anniversary of the Legislature Building in 2012 resulted in further renovations to the interior of the Building: the rotunda walls and ceilings were repainted; the terrazzo and marble floors were refinished; slate stair treads and landings were replaced, and the elevator cabs were upgraded. But perhaps most importantly, immediately after the Building centennial, the cupola was completely refurbished. Waterproofing and maintenance were badly needed. Many of the terra cotta tiles needed to be replaced. When former Premier Ed Stelmach (the first Alberta Premier of Ukrainian descent) returned to the Building for his portrait unveiling in 2012, he likened the sight of the wrapped cupola to a giant perogie! The chance to work on a once-in-a-lifetime restoration resulted in an extensive detailing of the project in Construction Canada. The refurbishment took over two years to complete.
Currently, the Legislature Building is undergoing yet another restoration. Commenced in 2019 and projected to conclude in 2022, masonry experts are making their way around the Building repairing the sandstone cladding and windows. Over 18,000 deficiencies were identified where slippage, chips, cracks, or pieces of cladding had fallen off.No interruptions to operations within the Building have been noted due to the construction work; however, the Legislature is once again partly draped in a construction tarp and the sound of machinery can be heard faintly echoing through the halls from time to time.
Regardless of whether it is the focal point of extensive renovations or whether there is only the need for a simple touch-up to the paint or the modernization of a building system, the Legislature is a prominent architectural feature and a great symbol of democracy in the province of Alberta. As part of the Centennial celebrations in 2012, the Legislature Building and portions of the south Legislature grounds were designated as provincial historical resources in recognition of their historical and architectural significance. The Legislature Building, through all of its refurbishments inside and out, is truly a living monument that continues to transform along with the lives of those whom it touches.
1 Jeffers worked at the City of Edmonton for 15 years before moving to Hollywood in 1923 to be a set designer.
2 See for example: Moragh Macauley. “The 75th anniversary of the Alberta’s Legislative Building,” Canadian Parliamentary Review (Autumn 1987): pp. 5-7.
3 “Legislators’ lives imperiled by walls,” Edmonton Journal (February 15, 1912): p. 3.
5 “Legislative chamber to be ready for next session,” Edmonton Capital (November 3, 1911): p. 11.
6 “Members risk their lives in house chamber,” Calgary Herald (March 31, 1924): p. 5.
7 “Vast improvement in acoustics, general opinion of members,” Edmonton Capital (October 3, 1914): p. 5.
8 “These halls not made for dances,” Calgary Herald (November 4, 1919): p. 22.
9 Alberta Hansard did not commence until 1972; however, selected recordings of proceedings were made after the installation of the sound system.
10 “Legislative buildings transformed into fairy bower for Prince’s visit,” Edmonton Journal (September 9, 1919): p. 1.
11 “Presentation is highlight royalty visit,” Edmonton Bulletin (June 2, 1939): p. 13.
12 “These halls not made for dances,” Calgary Herald (November 4, 1919): p. 22.
13 F. Bailie Hughes. “It’s housecleaning time on Capitol Hill…Royal Visitors expected,” Calgary Herald (May 20, 2939): p. 26.
14 “Rotunda under legislative dome decorated in reds, greens, browns,” Edmonton Journal (January 16, 1956): p. 13.
15 “Color scheme in rotunda is called ‘Hartley’s Horror’,” Edmonton Journal (February 14, 1956): p. 13.
16 “Alberta’s rich history is depicted in renovated legislative museum,” Within Our Borders (April 1960): p. 4.
17 “Legislature face-lifting costs $37,300,” Calgary Herald (March 15, 1972): p. 41.
18 Memo from David J. Carter, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. “Welcome to the newly refurbished Chamber of the Alberta Legislature.” March 5, 1987.
19 Jac MacDonald. “Capital was assured with ‘mammoth undertaking’,” Edmonton Journal (May 1, 1987): p. E7.
20 “The legislature outlasts sand foundations, stonewalling and critics,” Saint John’s Edmonton Report (June 27, 1977): p. 12.
21 Working together on sensible solutions: Climate Change Central 2002 progress report. Calgary: Climate Change Central, 2003, p. 8.
22 Trish Audette. “Legislature dome repair to cost $6.1M,” Calgary Herald (June 19, 2020): p. A8.
23 Darcy Henton. “Honest Ed says legislature with construction cover looks like a giant pyrogy,” Calgary Herald online (December 4, 2012). URL: https://calgaryherald.com/news/politics/honest-ed-says-legislature-with-construction-cover-looks-like-a-giant-pyrogy
24 Karl Binder, Rob Pacholok, and Gary Sturgeon. “A legislative legacy,” Construction Canada 56(1) (January 2014): pp. 58-66, 68-70.
25 Marta Gold. “Chipping away at the stone: inside the restoration of Alberta’s Legislature,” NAIT Techlifetoday (January 3, 2020). URL: https://techlifetoday.ca/articles/2020/alberta-legislature-restoration